A Primer on College Essays

By Rajkamal Rao  

Essays are crucial to college admissions. Image Credit: Rao Advisors LLC

High school students already know that the most crucial subjective part of their college application is, without a doubt, the college essay.  

Why do colleges even need essays?  They already know a lot about you through your grades, honors courses, AP exams, and admission tests.

As you probably guessed, grades and admission test scores tend to bring you down to a number.  Students are human and bring with them compelling life stories that are not captured by these numbers.  

The college essay provides you, as a student, an opportunity to present a human side to college admissions officers. Members of your audience who will review your essays are experts in the field. Admissions officers with just 5 - 8 years of experience may have read over 10,000 student essays in their careers!

Composing essays takes practice. You should pay attention to the style of writing - it can't be informal, like an email you would write to your friend. Neither does it have to be formal, such as an academic research paper. It has to be somewhere in between, where you can and should liberally use the word "I."

For most essays, you should adopt the role of a storyteller.  The reader does not know you and wants to understand who you are. So oblige the reader. For some essays - such as "Why is an odd number odd?" - the storytelling approach may not work quite as well, but you can still try to inject your personality into the essay.

Depending upon the essay, the tone should express confidence, joy, or optimism. In some cases - such as a student describing a story in which he/she overcame trauma - such a tone would be inappropriate. I once had a client talk about how the sudden loss of her beloved father created chaos.

Two Types of Essays

Colleges generally require high school students to submit two types of essays.

The first is the essay required as part of the Common App or Coalition App or the Universal App - these are platforms used to apply to colleges.  The Common App, the most popular platform, lists seven “Personal essay writing prompts”, which are really seven essay questions.  You can pick one and answer it to a length of 650 words. The so-called "Personal Statement" and any one of the seven Common App essay prompts are one and the same. For most colleges, this is the only essay you will ever need.

But highly selective colleges will require you to submit additional “supplemental” essays of their choosing.  These colleges want to better understand who you are, what you want to be, and how you can express yourself. Check out our post about the three kinds of essays colleges typically ask you to write and our advice about how to tackle them.

Many institutions do not use the Common App, like most colleges in Texas which use ApplyTex, public universities in California (UC Apply or Cal State Apply) or private schools like MIT which have dedicated applications portals. Each institution will have their own essay requirements. Some amount of reuse is possible. For example, if you're constrained for time, a good trick is to reuse the ApplyTex essay as one of the seven prompts of the Common App essay or the generic essay prompt for the Coalition App.

Regardless of which essay you are writing, follow these three simple rules.
  1. Answer the essay question correctly.  Too many students read too much into the question and over-engineer their responses.

  2. Be yourself and be honest.  College admissions officers look at thousands of essays in great detail and can quickly tell a genuine essay from one that's fake. An admissions officer from Harvard, speaking at an event in Ft. Worth in May 2019, advised students to take the "cafeteria test." Suppose you left behind the draft of a college essay in the school cafeteria and you didn't have your name printed on the essay, could a friend read the essay, and immediately know that it was you who wrote it?  If the answer is yes, you passed the cafeteria test.

  3. Have your essay professionally reviewed by someone who is neutral - that is, someone who didn't raise you from birth!  It is well worth the investment.
Admission officers of several selective colleges often talk about what they expect, such as in this video clip

What should you write about?

Here's a quote from Lacy Crawford, an award-winning author, whose quote and link we have carried on our website since her article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 2013.

In my years handling applications to elite schools, from Harvard to Haverford, Davidson to Dickinson and everything in between, I was often surprised by where students did gain acceptance. But in every case, it was a student who wrote a fabulously independent essay. Not necessarily hyper-sophisticated. But true.

My students always asked me, What should I write about?

I'd answer: You are a student of the world. What is it that moves you? What incites you, enrages you? A first-person pronoun is a mighty tool. Use it.

I have had successful students write about the virtues of napping (Middlebury), failing a course (Harvard), and having to shoot a farm dog because it couldn't work stock (Princeton). Once a student came out to me in his fifth (and best) draft. His parents probably still don't know, but they got the Ivy Leaguer they wanted (Penn).

I no longer work with high school seniors, but my counsel can be distilled for much less than $13,000. Students: tell a story in your own voice. Speak an opinion with care and focus. Claim that "I" and write the hell out of it.

The winning essays are generally those written from the heart, show compassion and highlight your character. David Holmes, who has done important work to signal the importance of character attributes in college admissions, defines character "as nonacademic factors -- e.g., service to society, evidence of a strong work ethic, attributes such as resilience, perseverance, and caring for others."

Another clue about what colleges like to see is buried in the selection criteria of scholarship applications. The Jack Kent Cooke scholarship application is available from within the Common App. The program is one of America's largest initiatives to advance the education of exceptionally promising students who have financial need. Four factors are evaluated before awarding up to $40,000 in grants. It is a safe bet to highlight one or more of these factors in your college essays.

  1. Exceptional academic ability and achievement: Strong academic record, academic awards and honors, GPA, college entrance exam scores, advanced courses, commitment to learning, and intellectual curiosity.

  2. Persistence: Determination and perseverance in the face of challenges, ability to set and remain focused on goals and to put in the effort needed to meet those goals in the face of obstacles.

  3. Leadership: Ability to organize and positively influence others in and out of school (family, religious community, sports, arts, etc.).

  4. Service to Others: Purposeful and meaningful commitment to others which may be evidenced by participation in volunteer/community service activities.

The New York Times generally publishes four college essays each year. Click here to review essays for the high school class of 2020.

How We Can Help

As described by the English Department at Brown University, good writing is made of key elements: Idea, Motive, Structure, Evidence, Explanation, Coherence, Implication, and Presence. Lack of one or more of these essential elements results in a poor essay.

In our experience as professional reviewers of student essays, we find several recurring patterns. Most students overestimate their ability to write and are unwilling to accept genuine criticism of their writing.
If you want to discuss your creative ideas about what to write, please book an appointment and we will be glad to give you pointers to help you build an outline.
Our essay review process is very structured. 
First-pass (Creative or Structural Review). When you submit your essay draft to us we will provide you with genuine feedback on your essay. Is the prose consistent? Are you duplicating ideas or being redundant (generally a major shortcoming)? Worse, are you contradicting yourself? Are the examples or context too narrow? Is the theme too broad?
On our team is Josh Ripple who has an undergraduate degree from Stanford and is pursuing a Ph.D. in English at UNC-Chapel Hill. We expect that when you receive our detailed comments on the essay, you will address each one of them, although you don't have to accept all of them. Your essay is, after all, your work!

Second-pass (Technical Review & Presentation). During the next pass, you will send us the revised essay for us to professionally edit and enhance. We do an end-to-end review of every word and punctuation, citing as our favorite 2018 story, the $5-million dollar comma. In 2021, an Australian court allowed a defamation suit to proceed because of a missing apostrophe.

Our technical reviews have helped students get into the most elite colleges. Rajkamal Rao, our lead counselor, uses his years of experience as a columnist for one of India's best-known newspaper groups and his 17-years of management consulting experience to help develop an essay that is highly presentable to colleges. 

As the last step during the second-pass, we use Grammarly Premium to check your essay for correctness, clarity, engagement, and delivery - and for the all-important plagiarism checks. We don't return your essay until we earn at least a 99/100 on the Grammarly score. At that point, your essay is complete. You would review it one last time and then upload it to your college application. If you make any changes to the essay, we ask that you return it to us for one last Grammarly check. We hate for your change to fail the plagiarism test or generate a silly grammar error after all the hard work!

Here is the "Before" essay of a student, the "After" essay following our review and edits, and an offer of admission the student received from Dartmouth, an Ivy League school. Our students have entered several selective colleges, including CMU, Duke, Cornell, Penn, and Columbia. Our lead reviewer has written over 330 articles in newspapers and is a prolific blogger.

We generally return reviewed essay versions in 24 hours or less. Please see our fees here .

How much time do we need to review/edit/enhance an essay? That depends upon the quality of the initial draft. A rule of thumb is that it takes us 1 hour to produce a professional-grade essay of about 350 words (both passes included).

So, the Common App essay (650 words) and ApplyTex essay (700 words) each takes us a little over 2 hours. Luckily, you can reuse the ApplyTex Topic A essay verbatim to suit the Common App essay (Prompt #7). So, you're getting two essays for the price of one!

The four UT Austin Short Answer essays (300 words each) take about 3 hours. For supplemental essays, it takes us 30-45 minutes each. For some tricky supplementals, such as, "Why is an odd number odd?", it will take longer. On rare occasions, we will need to talk to you briefly to understand what you want to say - and this discussion will also be billed at the hourly rate.

Please contact us for more information.

A Note About Rao Advisors Premium Services
Our promise is to empower you with high-quality, ethical, and free advice via this website.  But parents and students often ask us if they can engage with us for individual counseling sessions.  We offer world-class SOP and essay reviewing services for a reasonable fee, starting at $99/hour.

Individual counseling is part of the Premium Offering of Rao Advisors.  Please contact us for more information.

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